Office Party

Alexei, the improbably young, impossibly effervescent director of international and investor relations at Russia’s largest private bank, really likes the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel. “It’s really great,” he says, nodding emphatically. “Everything is very convenient here, very convenient. Really great.” It’s practically the first thing he says to me after we shake hands. I notice the hotel’s inoffensive taupe marble, the surprisingly loud fountain in the lobby; Alexei notices its good organization. “I value efficiency,” he says, nodding emphatically.

This throws me off. How could someone raised in this comically disorganized country possibly value efficiency?

Alexei came of age when the Soviet economy had stagflated itself into absurdity. High oil prices in the ’70s created an artificial sense of growth and this, combined with Brezhnev’s standpat resistance to any reform, reinforced and exacerbated the inefficiency of the country’s command economy. Workers pilfered their workplaces for supplies they couldn’t find on store shelves. They took home rubbing alcohol and bolts; they took home meat meant for stuffing sausages. They took hours out of their workday to scavenge for groceries and, when Gorbachev cracked down on vodka production in 1985, for sugar to run their bathtub stills. People read newspapers at work; they knitted and read romance novels. People did everything, it seemed, but work. “We pretend to work, and you pretend to pay us,” the old saying went.

But the state did pay, diligently, dutifully, regardless of their workers’ performance and regardless of their value. It paid its engineers and its old ladies guarding the rooms of state museums; it paid its bus drivers and it paid its doctors, though it paid the latter significantly less. And, when the Soviet worker passed from a life of toil to a life of leisurely retirement, the state paid him his pension and life was good and there was no unemployment.

But then capitalism came and spoiled the arrangement. Now pensioners are out on the streets raging against their shrunken pensions, and their children are trying, at middle age, to adjust to the rat race of a brutal new economy. Their grandchildren, on the other hand, are thriving.

Since 2000, the Russian economy has been growing by some 6 percent every year. Most of that comes–once again–from ballooning oil prices, but whatever oil and gas money isn’t getting stashed in Swiss banks (and billions of it is) is rapidly cycling through Moscow’s economy, spawning new and legitimate businesses.

“It’s a generation of workaholics,” Anya Katyurovskaya, who writes for Kommersant, who writes for Vlast magazine, told me. “It’s not unusual nowadays to call someone at one or two in the morning and hear, ‘I’m still at the office.’ This was unheard of in our parents’ generation.”

For young Russian professionals, the corner-cutting employee of their parents’ generation has become an irrelevant and ridiculed bogeyman: the sovok. The term is a play on the Russian words for “Soviet” and “dustpan,” and sovoks are exactly that: stale curmudgeons.

“They work nine to six, no matter what,” 24- year-old Vladimir Zimovtsev explained to me when we met for a rushed lunch. “The easier their work day, the better. They’re going to get paid anyway, so the client is just an inconvenience. He takes away their time to read a magazine or a newspaper at work, and this inevitably comes out as anger toward the client.”

Vladimir, a highly paid sales planner at Toyota’s Moscow office, got his MBA in Strasbourg, France. When he came back to Moscow looking for a job, he applied exclusively to foreign companies.

“I didn’t want to work for anyone of the old Soviet mentality,” he said. “Everything in our office is done according to Western methods, 100 percent. I don’t know – and don’t want to know – anything else.”

It is a common attitude among young Muscovites. The new Russian professional speaks English, is comfortable with technology, and works weekends. Danila Oleolenko, who moved to Moscow from Novosibirsk after college in search of a career, works for Sovero Media, an independent Russian advertising agency. He is frequently away, crisscrossing the country supervising production and scouting locations for billboards and ads. At his suggestion, we met for dinner at Propaganda, a popular hangout. “I never cook anymore,” he says, cheerfully spooling pasta onto his fork. “I come here most nights after work. The food is good, and it’s a very good value.” By the time Danila extricates himself from his office and crawls home through Moscow traffic – “I spend most of my time at work or in the car,” he says – there isn’t much time or energy left to whip up a home-cooked meal. So Danila, who earns a comfortable salary, has begun making the same kinds of opportunity cost calculations as his American counterparts: His time is too valuable to waste on labor-intensive thrift. In a city where affordable restaurants are still a new phenomenon, and where, until recently, most people ate almost exclusively at home to save money, this analysis is new and conspicuously Western.

On my last trip to Moscow, I was surprised not only by young Russians’ punishing work ethic, but by their matter-of-fact, almost soldierly approach to their duties. No one complained. No one pinned her distended schedule to her chest like a medal. It was, quite simply, the way things had to be done. A friend who is an art director at a sports magazine once sent me an email from work at four in the morning with no explanation. This was just his weekly routine, the mad rush to close the week’s issue, and there was no point grumbling about it. Ayshat Zulumhanova, a 21-year-old account manager at a prestigious advertising firm, says her job is very stressful and the hours are long. “On a light day, I could be there nine to six, or I could stay till one or two, or even four in the morning.” But, she hastens to add, no one is monitoring your hours. You choose to stay. The point is to get your work done rather than to put in face time for the boss. “It’s an honor system,” she says. “You stay till you finish your project, and when you’re done, your work is evaluated on its merits. The system of evaluation is very honest – it’s pointless to cheat.”

It’s pointless to cheat in part because there is so much opportunity, especially in industries like magazine publishing, financial services, advertising and marketing. These fields never existed in the Soviet Union, so when it collapsed, Ayshat’s generation found itself in a vacuum, “building their businesses from scratch,” as Stephen Jennings, CEO of Renaissance Capital, told a conference of investors last year. This generation’s parents did not know how to manage a portfolio or put out a fashion magazine–and they were too busy keeping their families afloat during the chaos of the ’90s–so their children had to step in instead. Kostya Penkov, who at age 30 was named editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Men’s Fitness (it folded in 2005), recalled the launch of Playboy in Russia in 1993. “We didn’t have publishing software, just this moveable metal type,” he said. “Even better, we only had Latin characters, but the magazine, of course, was in Russian. So we had wrack our brains coming up with Cyrillic headlines that we could spell out using Latin letters.”

The result of Russia’s opening is that resource-based companies, like natural-gas giant Gazprom, tend to have an older managerial class. The same is true for professions like law and medicine, where experience adds value. In the new economy – media, advertising, finance – the average employee is 20 years younger. At ArkConnect, Ayshat’s agency, for example, the business side is run almost exclusively by women under 35.

“In the West, an ambitious college graduate is competing with someone his parents’ age who is just as ambitious, just as hard-working but who also has 20 years of relevant experience,” Rem Petrov, the publisher of InStyle in Russia, told me. “In Moscow, young twenty- and thirtysomethings are more ambitious, have better communication skills; they work better and harder. They a have a significant competitive edge over their parents.” Petrov, it seems, is one of the few middle-aged people in media who can still compete.

Young Muscovites, then, are vying mostly with each other, and they do it in ways and settings that are increasingly similar to those in the West. They work in friendly, open spaces, a change from the old Soviet workplace of unwelcoming, closed-door offices or crowded, noisy rooms. The offices of the Russian Internet giant Yandex, for example, are airy and colorful, laid out with lots of common space and good humor. There’s a stage for talent shows and the two halves of a conference room that can be divided with an accordion wall are called “GDR” and “BRD”. Vladimir, the Toyota employee, sees a positive development in this. “In the Soviet Union, people sat in their little offices and no one knew or cared about what was going on. There was no information flow,” he says. “Now, where I work, no one has an office but the CEO. Everyone sits together. We are constantly discussing ideas and making decisions as a group. You feel like you’re part of a team, that the business actually depends on you. You’re invested in it.”

This psychological investment is instantly apparent. Young Muscovites make an effort to dress well for work. And, now that the novelty of available consumer goods have worn off, Moscow yuppies dress with subtlety and taste, abandoning the gaudy burgundy club jackets that, in the new Russia of the ’90s, connoted luxury. “I’m usually meeting with businesspeople in their 30s and 40s, so I have to look professional,” Slava Pospelov told me. At 26, Slava is a marketing manager at Ochakovo, a Russian beer company. “Your appearance takes care of 50 percent of anyone’s questions, so I try to look good. I wear nice Italian shirts, nice shoes.” He says that at his office, you can always spot the sovoks. “They’re the ones wearing old shirts and synthetic ties, and you know just by looking at them that they just don’t give a shit about anything.”

One can’t help but smell a kind of idealism in these conversations, a certain hard-nosed belief in meritocracy. It surpasses a desire to simply mimic the West. The goal, once again, is to catch and overtake. The young Russians working in these new industries seem to be in overdrive, both in terms of how hard they work, and in their faith in the fairness of the market. (One can imagine an Olympic competition in office sports between the lackadaisical Americans and the disciplined, ruthlessly trained Russians.) Vladimir, for one, already thinks Russia has overtaken Western Europe. “When I was in France, I saw lots of things we do better than them,” he told me. “Why are their banks closed on Mondays, for example? Why do they have a 35-hour work week?” He has a ready answer: “Because they work to live, and we live to work.”

Perhaps their zeal and their conscientious approach to work is not just a reaction to the old system, but a reaction to the current one. At the investor’s conference, Stephen Jennings spoke of the contradictory “dialectic” of the Russian economy. He praised the new generation as “modern, efficient, effective and honest,” but lamented the hyper-centralization of the state, which breeds “inefficiency, stalled reform, corruption and a serious decline of economic and social infrastructure.” Despite Putin’s recent announcement that he is launching a crusade against corruption, life in Moscow is checked at every turn by its countless manifestations: traffic cops who pull you over just to collect a bribe, say, or real estate prices inflated by the kickbacks the developer has to pay to get the building permit. In a society so choked with corruption, so unpredictable and highly personalized, any measure of objectivity and the sense of control it must bring must be very reassuring.

Then again, the youthful zeal could be, more simply, homage to the hand that feeds you. After all, these buzzwords and sharp clothes ultimately pay for cars and vacations in Vietnam and all the other Western luxuries that this generation’s parents couldn’t have. Whatever the reason, Moscow’s new corporate culture breeds optimism and self-assurance, and, of course, gibes at the poor old sovok left in the dust.

“They don’t dress well, they don’t speak English, they approach everything with this old Soviet attitude that everyone owes them something–they aren’t assets,” Alexei told me over lunch at the Marriott, peppering his speech with English “sorrys” for emphasis. “I mean, no offense, but sorry! They just aren’t.”

He paused to spear a forkful of lox, then added, “Thank God I never worked a day in the Soviet Union. It’s a good thing, because I didn’t respect the business culture at the time. I mean, no offense to that generation and all they’ve accomplished, but thank God! I mean, sorry, but it was a very strange country.”

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